Artist-filmmaker Julian Schnabel understands why some Jews have condemned his movie, “Miral,” which opens March 25, as an anti-Israel screed: “It comes out of fear,” he told me by phone from New York this morning. “The fear that the Holocaust occurred, that ‘We have been [decimated] and we don’t want it to happen again;’ that ‘these people, the Palestinians, are against us having a state of Israel, and we must fight for that no matter what happens.’ But I don’t believe that’s true. I believe a Jewish homeland in Israel is super important, and a great thing, but we must have empathy, we have to be sensitive. I don’t think it’s a very encouraging way to look at people, as ‘us and them.’ It isn’t us and them. We are all human beings. And what is good for the Palestinians is also good for the Israelis.”
Not everyone agrees with Schnabel about “Miral.” Mainstream Jewish groups such as American Jewish Committee and The Simon Wiesenthal Center have condemned the film as as one-sided propaganda, and in particular its United States premiere at the United Nations on Monday. “Others have attacked me because the film isn’t pro-Palestinnian enough,” Schnabel said. “I really can’t believe I’m even talking about this because ‘Miral’ is a movie about a girl and her family,” he added. “If the movie had been set in Afghanistan, we wouldn’t even be on the telephone today.”
“Miral”—which is based on an autobiographical novel by Schnabel’s girlfriend, the journalist Rula Jebreal—spotlights a Palestinian girl, orphaned after her mother commits suicide, who becomes radicalized while teaching in a refugee camp during the first Intifada in 1987. In one scene, the fictional Miral (Freida Pinto) is arrested in the middle of the night for her association with activists, then brutally beaten during her interrogation in an Israeli prison. In another, a female terrorist attempts to place a bomb in an Israeli cinema, while the rape scene from Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” plays on the screen. The sequence is a metaphor not only for the rape of Miral’s mother – which propels the woman’s suicide —but also for the protagonists’ perception of the rape of the Palestinian people, Schnabel said.
“Just as if I were painting a portrait, I’m dealing with what is in the frame that is related to Rula, and to Miral’s point of view,” said Schnabel, whose previous films include the acclaimed “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” “It’s not from my omniscient point of view of a 59-year-old Jewish guy who’s got all these different facts where I have to explain who attacked whom in the Six Days War. It’s Miral’s family history as it was told to her, and as it was lived by her. And that’s the power of the story. I can’t do this inexhaustible summation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are just too many stories.”
Not that Schnabel is without his own opinion. “When I shot the movie and lived and worked in Israel and in Palestine, I was pretty ashamed of certain situations that I witnessed,” he said. “I felt it was like apartheid over there, and that’s very disappointing. There’s democracy for Jewish people in Israel but I don’t think there’s democracy for Palestinian people….When I see a kid with pais and a yarmulke throwing a rock into a Palestinian home and screaming at them, that doesn’t seem to be the Jewish way to me.”
Schnabel knew almost nothing about Middle East politics until he met Jebreal in 2007 at an opening of his exhibition at the Palazzo Venezia in Rome, a former Pope’s residence where Mussolini gave his infamous speech-on-the balcony during World War II.
Schnabel had grown up in a strongly Zionistic family; his mother was president of the Brooklyn chapter of Hadassah at the time Israel was founded in 1948, and held many terms in subsequent years. As a child, he remembers how she “sold tickets for the youth aliyah; the B’nai Brith brunches on Sundays and how all the women who came to our house were members of Hadassah.
“My mother very much wanted me to go to Israel after my bar mitzvah, but I didn’t want to go—in part because everyone else was,” Schnabel said. “I was just more interested in being an artist; it was a point of rebellion in a way.”
When Schnabel finally did visit Israel, he arrived, ironically, the day before the first Intifada began in 1987. While Jebreal was teaching children in refugee camps, he was preparing for his solo show at the Israel Museum. Schnabel recognized that there was a curfew imposed, and that he and his sister were the only people dining in an Arab-owned restaurant his second night in Israel.
While in the Jewish state, the artist had hoped to make a painting on a Bedouin tent in the desert, with Arabs and Jews, and then view it from several hills away. That didn’t happen because of the Intifadah. “Really the whole trip was more about me being an American artist talking to Israeli art students than me finding out about what was happening with the [uprising],” he said.
At that time, Schnabel was already a superstar of the art world, having achieved international recognition for his brash, large-scale paintings set on broken ceramic plates. He had also made a splash for his larger-than-life personality (wearing pajamas in public, for example, and comparing his own genius to Picasso’s).
In 1996, Schnabel made his feature film debut with “Basquiat,” a biopic of the American postmodernist artist Jean-Michel Basquiat; in 2007, his Cannes-winning drama, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” was based on the remarkable memoir of Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor-in-chief of French Elle, who was struck with a rare condition that paralyzed him with all his mental faculties intact.
Schnabel’s exhibition at the Palazzo Venezia, also in 2007, was more flamboyant: “There were 40 paintings that I actually installed without building temporary walls, so you could just see modern paintings among the frescoes in these giant rooms,” he said. When he met Jebreal at the show’s opening, he assumed she was Indian, but was surprised to learn she was, in fact, Palestinian, and an Israeli citizen.
“I could almost see tension for a moment in his eyes,” Jebreal told me of that meeting. But the artist and the writer clicked; and when she susequently sent him her novel, “Miral,” he was moved and heartbroken by her story.
Pick up the March 25 issue of the Journal for more on Schnabel, Jebreal, their relationship, their collaboration on “Miral,” and the public’s response to the film.